: Our Greatest Challenge: Aboriginal Children And Human Rights

Our Greatest Challenge: Aboriginal Children And Human Rights

Terri Libesman

our gratest challenge hanna mcgladeHannah McGlade; Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012; 256pp; $39.95 (paperback)

Hannah McGlade brings her experience as a Noongar woman who suffered child sexual abuse, her expertise as a human rights lawyer, compassion and passion to Our Greatest Challenge: Aboriginal children and human rights. She addresses sexual assault of Aboriginal children with a directness and honesty which is often shied away from because of the taboo, shame and uncomfortable complexity which sexual violence against children generates. Our Greatest Challenge analyses sexual violence against Aboriginal children as a continuity of and in the context of colonial violence, in particular the extensive historical violence against Aboriginal women and girls. McGlade provides an analysis of the intersecting and compounding influences of race, gender and colonial legacies which strip many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children of safety in a routine way. Institutional failings are made more powerful with personal accounts of the adverse impact of the criminal justice system, and more broadly Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal societies’ failure to prioritise the rights of Aboriginal women and children.

Our greatest challenge cuts through many myths. Hannah McGlade does not like to use the word paedophile, with its connotations of individualised sexual aberrance. She places the abuse of Aboriginal women and children by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men in a context of power abuses which are part of a broader matrix of institutional complicity. She contrasts the use of ‘cultural defences’ of violence perpetrated by men, which as she notes Aboriginal women (and some men) have described as a ‘gross’ abuse of culture, with the failure of courts and prosecutors to acknowledge the aggravated impact of abuse when Aboriginal relationships of trust, such as the special responsibility which an older cousin has for a younger child, are broken. McGlade critiques the frequent replication of western public/private divisions in politics with the prioritisation of the public at the expense of women and children in Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal advocacy and institutions. She exposes racist portrayals of Aboriginal men as inherently violent and a threat and Aboriginal women and girls as promiscuous and complicit in their own abuse, challenging the ways in which violence against Aboriginal women and children is mythologised and racialised. These destructive and demeaning ideas feed into the particularly discriminatory way that intra community violence against Aboriginal women and children is ignored, excused and minimised.

The extensive abuse of Aboriginal children is evidenced with a review and analysis of a decade of government reports into violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children which have demonstrated the extent, severity and impact of this violence on children, women, families and communities. McGlade points out the limited implementation of reforms recommended by these reviews with a major concern being the failure to empower Aboriginal communities, in particular Aboriginal women, to respond to child sexual assault. In many instances non Indigenous agencies, sometimes without the inclusion of Indigenous peoples, despite consistent recommendations to the contrary, have been given responsibility for addressing Aboriginal child sexual abuse. McGlade emphasises that Aboriginal empowerment and self-determination are crucial to effectively addressing violence against women and children. The failure of the criminal justice system, from inadequate and ineffective policing to the victimisation of children in the course of cross- examination and court proceedings, to sentencing which fails to reflect the seriousness of offences committed is addressed. In effect, in many instances, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children continue to lack the protection of the law.

Our Greatest Challenge is dedicated to ‘all Aboriginal children who cried out in the night but who were not heard. In special memory of Susan Ann Taylor (1984 –99).’ It exposes the matrix of institutions and ideas which have historically and contemporarily facilitated, condoned or failed to support Aboriginal children who experience sexual violence. Despite the dreadful failings which are presented, Our Greatest Challenge offers ways forward. It presents the voices of many strong women and children who have denounced sexual violence against Aboriginal children. McGlade looks to comparative responses to child sexual assault in Canada and the US and emphasises that whatever response is taken it must be informed by local communities, be developed in conjunction with a reformed criminal justice system, that the process for developing and implementing change is as important as the models adopted and that any response must empower Aboriginal women and children.

TERRI LIBESMAN is an academic in the law faculty, UTS, Sydney.

(2013) 38(2) AltLJ 134
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